I first became aware of Charlotte Gainsbourg while dipping in the river of her father, Serge Gainsbourg. On the cover of his 1971 masterpiece, Historie de Melody Nelson, the cover girl is Mrs. Jane Birkin, Mr. Gainsbourg’s wife. What many don’t know is the fact that while Mrs. Birkin was portraying a sort of Lolita on the LP cover she was, in fact, very pregnant with the couple’s first child. The child was the future Charlotte Gainsbourg. Eleven years later, Ms. Gainsbourg became either famous or infamous by costarring in a video of a song sung in duet with her father. The title of the duet is “Lemon Incest.” At 15 she released her first LP, Charlotte Forever, while embarking on a movie career. In 2003 she starred in the film 21 Grams as Sean Penn’s wife. 2007 saw Ms. Gainsbourg back on an American movie screen in Todd Haynes’s Bob Dylan science fiction film I’m Not There. The role she played in the circular fantasy is that of Dylan’s wife Sara, and this story within the film is one of the only two interesting story arcs in the messy film (the other being Cate Blanchett’s amazing portrayal of Bob Dylan). Two years later she starred in Lars Von Trier’s vividly controversial film Antichrist as “She.” Seeing Gainsbourg on screen, you think of her patronage. She has Birkin’s body, lithe and long, and her father’s facial structure: nose, cheekbones, and lips. She is very striking yet unconventional in her looks. Those looks are not the only thing that connects her to the legacy of her parents’ art; she adds her own art to their legacy.
One can only imagine the difference in recording an album at 15 versus recording an album at 35. That’s a lot of living between the two records, a lot of life and a lot of experience. Twenty years after her debut, Gainsbourg released her second LP, 5:55. Much like her own British and French heritage, this LP is an artistic collaboration between British and French recording artists. The main British players are Jarvis Cocker, lead singer for Pulp, and Neil Hannon, lead everything for the “band” the Divine Comedy. The French players are Jean-Benoît Dunckel and Nicolas Godin, known collectively as Air. We are talking about four QUALITY artists on this disc, collaborating with Ms. Gainsbourg.
Upon first listen, one finds music that compliments and covers the vocals. This is not a negative or a slight, just the way the disc sounds. The music and voice feel like equals and the fact that the vocals are a hair softer than the music makes you listen that much harder to the words you hear. After multiple listens, you find that the star of the CD is not just the voice of Ms. Gainsbourg but the piano playing of Jean-Benoît Dunckel. On the lead single, “The Songs That We Sing,” Mr. Dunckel’s piano playing (as well as his glockenspiel) adds such emotional direction and heft to the song. The sounds lift you up and carry you with the song. The title track of the CD and the second single “5:55” begins with the piano, stating from the beginning that this musical instrument is one of the main factors of interest for the disc. It isn’t just the piano that draws you into the music; all the instruments invite you in. Air as a band includes only the two French artists, but the instruments they incorporate in their own music add richness to this album. What I also find special about this music is the collaboration: four singular artists working together creating special music that sounds modern yet nostalgic. Gainsbourg’s singing voice recalls her mother’s whispered singing style, but these four create an updated sound that sets this disc so far above any specific Jane Birkin LP. This is not a criticism of Birkin’s work; an acknowledgment of the update in music lends to a timeless sound. I can’t think of a second-generation artist who captures elements of both parents so strongly. While watching the video for the song “5:55,” you see a striking figure in black and white with her mother’s body and her father’s face. The ugliness of Serge Gainsbourg that I wrote about last week is not ugliness when it comes to his daughter, far from it. If anything, you can sort of see the beauty of Serge Gainsbourg when looking at his daughter. Almost all the songs on 5:55 are sung in English and yet they would sound timeless in any language. The choice of Air, Jarvis Cocker, and Neil Hannon push this album to a higher place.
It took Ms. Gainsbourg 20 years to follow up her debut yet only three years to craft her third LP, IRM. The disc is another collaboration, this time with the American artist Beck. The title of the LP refers to the French spelling of MRI or Magnetic Resonance Imaging, a process we hear about frequently but honestly hope to never endure. Ms. Gainsbourg had to endure this process after a skiing injury produced a cerebral hemorrhage. One can never know if this touch of mortality affected Ms. Gainsbourg’s art because she did not write any of the new album. It touched Beck, the songwriter. For example, on the title track “IRM” one gets a detailed and vague description of various medical terms, including a line stolen from the Beatles. The song itself is dense and claustrophobic, evoking the hum of the machine and the feeling of being trapped inside a tube for the duration of the exam. The beat of the song immediately sounds like a Beck record, a trait some may care for but I don’t. I used to really like Beck; I have fond, fond memories of discovering his music and individual paths into different sounds. But ever since his Sea Change LP I have found him boring and a non-factor. Guero was a great disc, a great follow up to Sea Change, but plotting a graph of his work since, we have seriously diminishing returns. Beck duets with Ms. Gainsbourg on the first single, “Heaven Can Wait.” Listening to this and then the LP I found myself overwhelmed by the fact that this is not a collaboration as much as it is a Beck LP with a different voice doing the singing. When you listen to “Heaven Can Wait,” you can barely hear Ms. Gainsbourg. She is on there, but you could easily think she wasn’t or that this was a new duet of Beck’s, featuring some female singer. There are some catchy moments on the LP but on the whole it feels somehow inauthentic.
There are many differences between 5:55 and IRM but I believe that the biggest difference is the approach of the collaborators. On 5:55 you have a very European perspective dominating the disc. There is an authenticity in this approach as Ms. Gainsbourg comes from the European diaspora. She speaks English and French and sings in both as well. The musicians on 5:55 complement her without overshadowing her, which allows her to shine. On IRM the shadow of Beck looms large and the music he crafts for the songs and the album feels as if he is paying tribute as opposed to creating something fresh and new. Remember that on Sea Change Beck used the entire bassline from Melody Nelson around which to base a song. Call it sampling, but the extent to which he used that sound puts the track into a different territory. We are talking a Puff Daddy level of just lifting the soul out of a song and using it to to create something completely new. He even aped the Jean Claude Vannier strings! You hear this song and then listen to the work with Ms. Gainsbourg and you get the sense that even while trying to make a Gainsbourg record, Beck can’t create something to allow her to shine. He dominates, by design or by accident, and the record suffers a tad from that fact.
While writing this I stumbled across news that in November Ms. Gainsbourg will be releasing a new LP, half live and half studio. The lead single is a song called “Terrible Angels” and it was written and produced by Beck. I have to admit that as much as I found his presence on IRM distracting I do not find anything about this new track frustrating. It sounds modern and individual, with a hearty stomp and catchy hook. And then there is the video, a wacky approximation of Michael Jackson’s “Bad” (dancing in a parking garage) with Eminem’s “Slim Shady” (an army of leather jacket-clad Charlotte Gainsbourgs). The video is nebulous and arty and surprising, given that on the heels of IRM it didn’t seem possible to me to place Ms. Gainsbourg alongside Beck and make music that sounds unique. I’m glad that I was wrong.
After repeated listens to the new song, I find myself drifting back not to either LP but to the song Ms. Gainsbourg recorded for I’m Not There. Backed up by Calexico she covers Dylan’s “Just Like A Woman.” Something about this cover of that classic song feels like a wonderful cool breath of air inhaled swiftly before an exhaled sigh. Hearing a song sung in her natural tones makes the music she recorded with Beck much more daring and out of her comfort zone. That is what makes good art–the challenge–and by not initially accepting the change and challenge I didn’t see that fact. Listening to this song brings it all back home and allows an appreciation for all facets of her talents. It reaffirmed my enjoyment of 5:55 AND it enhanced my appreciation of IRM for the ultimate reason that artists take chances; artists move outside their comfort zones. Artists never rest and that is the hardest art of all.
Mike Vincent lives and works in the wilds of Northern Michigan. He is writing this byline at 1:06 a.m.